In this episode, we tackle the seemingly intimidating topic of writing your own music, and give you tips on how you can share it with the world.
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In our recent episode with Todd McCarty we talked a lot about getting your music out there and finding fans.
And I know that some of our loyal listeners may have hesitated to actually listen to it, because despite what I said in the intro about it being relevant to all, I know that a lot of you don’t feel like you’re ready for creating your own music or sharing it.
So I wanted to address that today – because at Musical U we really believe that creating and sharing music isn’t an advanced thing for the best musicians only, it can and should be accessible to every musician from day one. But I totally recognise that with the way music is often taught, you might be feeling a bit intimidated or reluctant to think about that. I’m channeling my past self here – I spent a long time with a chip on my shoulder about this stuff and feeling like there was a big barrier between people who just played instruments and those who really went out there and created music worth sharing.
Today I want to share with you two simple ways to get started creating music worth sharing, and then talk a little about the sharing itself. I think, and I hope, that the ideas I’ll be sharing are going to be useful for those of you who feel like you’ve never created any music of your own, and also for those of you who dabble, or indeed spend a lot of your time writing songs or composing music.
Creating One Note at a Time
The first way to get started creating music is something from our Approaching Improvisation module in Musical U. If you’ve been listening to the show for a while you’ll have heard our Improv Month episodes where we talked a lot about getting started with improvising in music, and at the time we were releasing our full Improvising Roadmap in Musical U. One of the modules we released then has gone on to be one of our most popular across the whole site, and that’s Approaching Improvisation.
It’s designed for people who’ve either never improvised before or have tried one of the “paint by numbers” rule-based systems for improvising – and it gives you a totally fresh way to look at the beautiful simplicity that improvisation can be all about.
What I wanted to share today from that module is something Andrew from our team calls the “Listen/Play, Play/Listen” approach. It’s the idea that whenever you’re making music you can either be hearing something in your head, i.e. listening, and then bringing it out into the world. Or you can be playing something, for example from sheet music, and then listening to it as it emerges from your instrument. The first, Listen/Play, is essentially about playing by ear, which is one wonderfully free avenue to improvising. The second, Play/Listen, is about really paying attention to what comes out of your instrument and allowing it to inspire and guide you.
In the module we combine these two ideas and build on them step-by-step to help you explore improvisation in a way that’s pure, and simple, and incredibly versatile.
And that’s what I wanted to share today, on this theme of creating something worth sharing. Because completely independent of all the specifics of scales, and keys, and pieces you’ve learned and instrument technique you may or may not have – these two approaches provide a way to tap into your creativity.
We recently had a phenomenal masterclass at Musical U with Lisa McCormick, creator of the Note2Self method for music practice, and I think we’ll probably talk more about that in future episodes – but one comment she made almost in passing really stuck out to me and is relevant here. She said we need to remember that even a single note in music can be beautiful. Pick up your instrument and play just one note – and really listen!
That’s actually something else we feature in the Approaching Improv module, starting from one note and building up, and it’s that which I really wanted to put in front of you today: that reminder that in opposition to all the grand ideas we might have and the great ambition we might (or might not!) have for our music, we need to remember how simple a lot of the greatest music is. And simply sitting down with your instrument and playing, and listening – and listening, and playing – that is a beautiful route to creating something which truly comes from inside you.
So that’s the first way to get started creating. And if you want more of the specifics about how to make that improvisation experience fun and effective I’d suggest checking out our Improv Month episodes, I’ll put links to those in the shownotes, because there are some extra ideas and guidelines that’ll help.
Creating From a Starting Point
The second way to start getting creative is something that’s come up a few times in interviews on the show, such as with Leila Viss talking about “stealing like an artist” and Marshall McDonald talking about starting from a solo or a melody you like and starting to play around with it. A moment ago I talked about creating pretty much from a blank slate, just sitting down and starting from scratch. But it can be just as effective to start from something very specific that you know how to play (or want to figure out by ear) and using that as your starting point.
For example, just changing the ending notes of each phrase. Try taking the melody up instead of down, or vice-versa. If you stick to the notes in the key you won’t sound too strange – or try exploring outside the key and see how it sounds! Of course there are a lot of ways to experiment. In our improv Roadmap we call these “dimensions”, such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and so on. They are all ways to take something known and make it your own.
One personal tip on this front: try to silence your inner editor when you do this. If you’re anything like me then when you sit down to try to create your own thing and start from some existing bit of music you’re going to almost immediately hear a voice in your head going “Well, that’s almost the same, you can’t claim that’s your own” or “this is silly, you’re just making little adjustments”. You need to ignore that voice and keep exploring. Sure, changing one or two notes in the riff from Layla or a John Williams soundtrack melody isn’t going to provide you with your own unique masterpiece! But ignore that inner critic and keep exploring and experimenting and you’ll be surprised how quickly you find your way to new territory and the riffs, melodies, rhythms, harmony and more which truly are unique and have come from your own taste and creativity.
So that’s the second way: simply experiment!
Again, that’s something you can take away and do immediately – but it can also be bolstered by knowledge and skills, and all the musicality material we teach at Musical U comes into play here. It’s a lot easier to experiment in a way you find satisfying if your brain and your ears understand what’s going on in the music. Don’t let that hold you back, if you haven’t yet done musicality training. But I just wanted to mention it as an opportunity if you find yourself enjoying that experimenting and wanting a way to feel a bit more intentional with it.
So there are two ways to start creating, and I hope one or both will help you start creating little bits of music that you really enjoy playing and hearing.
Don’t forget: Record Yourself!
Remember to record yourself whenever you’re playing around like this! I was talking with Glory St. Germain from Ultimate Music Theory recently and she made this point, that whenever you’re in that creative mode, even in a relaxed experimental way, make sure you have a recorder running! Because you never know when you’ll play something and think “wow, that sounded great!” And it’ll be a lot easier to capture and return to and expand on if you can listen back rather than relying purely on your musical memory.
What about Sharing?
So now that you’re creating, what about the sharing side?
Well, in the spirit of this show I’m not going to plough into the nitty gritty of online publishing and social sharing and establishing your online presence as an artist and all of that. If you’re already a songwriter or composer and you’re at the stage of wanting all those details I’d suggest our recent interviews with Todd McCarty and with Bree Noble, and checking out their websites – links in the shownotes.
What I am going to talk about is that critical word in this episode’s title: I said creating music worth sharing. We’ve covered the creating, we’re not going to talk about the sharing in detail. But from what I know of our listeners here at the Musicality Podcast it’s probably that word “worth” that’s going to trip you up.
So I’m going to talk to myself as a teenager. This is after I’d learned the fundamental instrument technique on a few instruments but before I’d discovered ear training. For about ten years, with the exception of a brief period where I did dabble with song writing, my mindset was definitely “I’m not really creative, I can’t make my own music, I’ll just play what’s been written before”. I’ve mentioned on the show before that I couldn’t play by ear, and improvisation to me meant just noodling up and down a scale and hoping it sounded okay. I wrote a couple of strange songs and one very angry one about my girlfriend dumping me, and that was about the sum total of my creative output for that decade or so.
And really it all hinged on that question of “worth”.
There’s this great video of Ira Glass, host of This American Life, talking about the curse of having good taste. And to paraphrase, he explains that what makes us passionate and gets us into creating art is that we have good taste and we know what we love – but then the irony is that it takes a really long time for our own creative output to get good enough to live up to our own taste and expectations, so it can be a really painful and discouraging journey if you’re not expecting that. I’ll put a link to the video in the shownotes.
So this is the key to it, I think: to put it bluntly, we need to lower our standards!
And that phrase normally has really negative connotations, like we’re giving up or copping out, or producing mediocre work.
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about readjusting our sense of what’s worth creating. Remember that idea, of a single note being a beautiful thing to hear. By playing just that one lovely note you’ve made the world around you tangibly better than it was when there was just silence. If that’s the case then surely there’s a whole spectrum of things worth creating between that single note and the musical masterpieces you might be hoping to one day create.
So the first step is to accept that simple can be beautiful, short can be beautiful, different can be beautiful. And if you play something and you like the sound of it then it was worth creating.
The second step is to decide that if it was worth creating and it brought you joy to hear it then maybe it could do the same for someone else. Meaning it’s worth sharing.
Again, “sharing” doesn’t have to be this big intimidating thing. It doesn’t need to mean publishing, it doesn’t need to mean standing up live in front of a crowd, it doesn’t need to mean making it available for anyone in the world to hear and critique. Sharing can be as simple as playing back the recording for a musician friend and saying “Hey, check out this riff I played the other day, it’s kind of cool, right?”. Or even, as Gerald Klickstein suggested in his interview here on the show, it can just mean playing for an audience comprised of your cat!
Take small steps and you’ll realise that the things you’re capable of creating are worth creating, and the things that are worth creating are worth sharing with other people too.
This is something we talk about in our Get Confident module in Musical U, that there’s a great big mindset shift you can make in your expectations of other people’s expectations. We tend to think that other people are going to be really critical and judgemental and expect only perfection from us – when in fact, if you approach the right people in the right way, it will be only a positive experience to share your music with them.
Think about your musical friends, think about your family, think about a mastermind group like Todd McCarty was talking about. Or yes, think about your cat. Figure out who you do feel comfortable sharing even just a little musical creation with, and then go for it.
This is the best way – and in fact, the only way
Now I’m guessing that when you saw the title of this episode, “About Creating Music Worth Sharing” your mind might have immediately leapt to song writing and composing and publishing on YouTube and Spotify and all that. Clearly that’s not what we’ve covered!
But what I want to end with is one more point: It’s not an either/or thing. If you begin to create in the ways we’ve discussed, and you begin to share in the ways I just suggested, you’re going to find that it’s all a smooth and fun path towards those big impressive acts of creating and sharing. You don’t need to do the big things from day one, you don’t even need to think about them from day one.
Start creating. Start sharing. You might be surprised where it takes you, and I guarantee you’re going to enjoy the journey.
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